March Madness ticket prices are based on luck of the draw

Courtesy of Marketwatch (Opinion):

March Madness can be a ripoff, and not just for mid-major conference schools and student athletes who get no share of its windfall.

There’s a whole lot of inequity in NCAA Division I men’s college basketball, and it trickles down to the average cost of a ticket. The folks at TicketIQ, a site that aggregates sports-ticket sales from vendors and resale sites, reviewed the offerings for this year’s men’s basketball tournament and found that the average ticket price has jumped 29% from last year, while the number of tournament tickets available before the First Four tipoff in Dayton, Ohio, was down 16% from the same period in 2016.

Just how much you pay, however, depends largely on the region. If you’re a University of Florida fan from Gainesville and scored tickets to their first-round matchup with Eastern Tennessee State in Orlando, you were rewarded with a $148 average ticket price that’s the cheapest of the first and second rounds, and the lowest ticket price of $29, a steal. “But none of the top seeds are playing in Orlando,” you say? OK, smart guy, what if we went to Tulsa, Okla., to see No. 1 seed Kansas? The average ticket price there was still $155, with the cheapest seat in the house going for a tournament-low $12.

Even if you wanted to see last year’s national champion, now-ousted Villanova, debut in Buffalo, $55 would have gotten you in the door and the average seat went for $188. Compare that to Greenville, N.C., where the presence of both the No. 1-seed North Carolina and No. 2-seeded Duke (now gone) bumped the average ticket price to $509 and put the cost of getting into the building at $131. That’s steeper than the cost of tickets at most of the destinations in the regional rounds that follow.

While it costs just $61 to get in the door in Indianapolis, having both No. 2 Louisville and No. 2 Kentucky in the building — along with upstart No. 7 Michigan — pushed the average ticket price to $296. By comparison, you could get in to see No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 Arizona in Salt Lake City for just $38 or for $212, on average.

Sweet 16

It gets a little more petty in the Sweet 16. If you’re following North Carolina, Kentucky, UCLA, Butler or anyone else in the South, tickets will cost you $335, on average, in Memphis. If you’re pushing for anyone in the wide-open East, you not only have to find a place to stay in the New York metro area, but you’ll spend an average of $595 per ticket. The $133 you’ll pay just to get in is second only to the $153 buy-in price in Kansas City (though the $404 average ticket price is still well below MSG’s).

Final Four

We won’t get into that $789 Final Four price, since all games are held in Glendale (which has been ripped off in its own right) and there really isn’t a point of comparison. We’d accept that supply and demand plays into this somewhat, but even the numbers don’t bear that out. Just before the First Four, there were 1,551 of those $509-on-average tickets left in Greenville. That’s the lowest of the opening rounds, but not all that much lower than the 1,790 that remained in Buffalo ($181) and certainly less than the 9,695 that remained in Tulsa ($155). Even for the Sweet 16, the 7,077 tickets left and MSG were more than what remained in either Memphis (6,236), San Jose (4,923, with an entry price of less than $100) or Kansas City (4,512).

NCAA gouging

We don’t place the blame for this on either the venues themselves or the resellers, but squarely on the NCAA. A governing body that has no problem hosting its Final Four and championship game in football stadiums somehow hasn’t managed to devise a plan that flattens the base price in the early rounds somewhat? Here’s a suggestion: If the early rounds of your tournament in basketball-rabid North Carolina have any chance of drawing both UNC and Duke — as a South bracket tends to — maybe you don’t hold that round in a 16,000-capacity arena used by a minor league hockey team. Charlotte’s Spectrum Center seats 19,000, Raleigh’s PNC Arena seats 19,700 — neither the Hornets nor Hurricanes tend to hit those numbers late in their playoff-free seasons.

Thinking of putting two former national champions from Kentucky in the same venue? Maybe you don’t stick them in an Indianapolis arena that, though it has great sightlines for basketball, holds more than 4,000 fewer people than either Kentucky’s or Louisville’s home arenas. Also, though any New York-area NCAA tournament date will be costly, perhaps consider not plunking a regional right in the middle of Manhattan and what’s already one of the most expensive markets in the country. When the average ticket for a regional matchup held in the middle of Silicon Valley in San Jose costs nearly $150 less than a ticket at MSG, maybe you forgo The World’s Most Famous Arena (TM) for, say, Newark or Hartford.

Resale values

We don’t mean to begrudge some poor student a quick payday on his school-rate tournament tickets, but there’s little rhyme or reason to the resale value of these events. Keep in mind that the NCAA gets $10.8 billion from its broadcast deal with CBS CBS, +0.50%  and Turner (which have made a combined $8.2 billion in ad revenue from the tournament in the past decade).

The NCAA also gets off cheaply by shrugging off the ongoing case brought against it by Ed O’Bannon, who was among UCLA basketball’s starting five when it won the 1995 national championship. A lower court decided that the NCAA deprives men’s basketball and football players of the monetary value of their names, images and likenesses when used for commercial purposes, an appeals court confirmed that the NCAA is not above antitrust law and the Supreme Court refused to hear the case. At some point, the NCAA will actually have to address the issue of athlete compensation, but it will also have to address why some fans and alumni get bilked during the tournament while others get tickets on the cheap.

Whether that remedy involves reassessing early-round host sites, setting up more stringent capacity criteria or even reserving Sweet 16 dates for venues seating 20,000 or more, it’s worth seeking. Though the fortunes of the tournament’s teams may rely largely on the seeds they draw, the price fans pay for games shouldn’t be determined by the luck of the draw as well.

Jason Notte is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post and Esquire. Follow him on Twitter @Notteham.


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